Fewer Americans are becoming parents.
According to the New York Times, American birthrates are in sharp decline—in fact, they’ve been decreasing for years. The general U.S. fertility rate is at a record low, and data-collectors attribute this to women delaying pregnancy, often past their prime childbearing years.
Anecdotally, this indicates a modern cultural shift of women—and men—being less interested, inclined, or called, to pursue traditional parenthood. I am one of those women.
As early as age six, I baulked when my mother begged me to play in the plastic play lands attached to McDonald’s:
“But, mother,” I said, “It’s full of children.”
My relationship with tiny humans was complex from the start. Babies fascinated me, but their older counterparts puzzled me. Now, I am 34, and by society’s standards, I should be a mother. But, I simply don’t desire it with all my heart.
Childfree By Choice
My husband, Fred, and I are the last among the childfree holdouts of our family and peer groups. Siblings, cousins, and best friends have made us the proud aunt and uncle to growing brood that we love, even while gently questioning our choice not to have one of our own.
“You’d make fantastic parents!” They encouraged. Others were more practical in their urging.
“Who’s gonna take care of you when you’re old?” Fred’s octogenarian Granny posed last fall, when he explained we were forgoing parenthood.
“There’s no guarantee our kids would take care of us, Granny.”
“Well, ain’t that the truth?” she muttered, and I sensed a mother’s disappointment of how she thought things would be different.
Inquiries into our hypothetical biological or adoptive offspring have spread far out from our immediate circle. A few years ago, when I published Saffron Cross, a memoir on my Christian-Hindu interfaith marriage, Fred and I attended a large book conference in New York. Hearing about my interfaith work, an eager Christian stopped us on our way to the restroom: “But, how will you raise your kids?” he asked.
“We don’t feel called to have our own children,” we offered. And, there, in the middle of the convention center, we were subjected to a tirade on the sin of unnatural birth control practices.
Even more recently, at a university lecture on interfaith dialogue, the first question posed by the room full of 18-year-olds was: “How will you raise your children?” When we toured with my bookacross the southeastern U.S., even my publicist cautioned us about disclosing our childfree preferences publically. “It’s polarizing,” she said.
But, interview after interview, though we tried to avoid, deflect, and redirect the child question, it was always the first and most aggressive thing everyone wanted to know.
I only stopped receiving the push-back from my gynecologist when I switched from a female to male doctor. Prior to that, each annual exam was peppered: “Oh, sweetie. You’re still young. There’s plenty of time to change your mind.”
A Different Kind of Parenthood
While our dearest friends felt called to having their own children and yearned for it with every heartbeat, Fred and I did not. But, why was that such an issue, mostly among strangers? After all, many Americans had made a similar choice. Christians, in particular, expressed the most disapproval.
Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School Professor, cautions all Christians against such narrow-mindedness of what it means to “parent.” In response to the theological interpretation of abortion and the church’s role in preventing it, Hauerwas offers: “Biology does not make parents in the church. Baptism does.” Hauerwas’ position asserts that every baptized Christian’s duty to parent, but not in the way that grandmothers, friends, strangers, college freshman, journalists, and doctors view it.
“The church reinvents the family,” Hauerwas posits, with the “obligation to introduce [these] children to the Gospel.” Under Hauerwas’ argument, the Body of Christ—the Church—becomes “parent” to all, a configuration of “family” with no blood ties and birth certificates, but rather, united by the bond of baptism.
While we do not yearn to be a full-time mother and father to little ones, Fred and I believe strongly in this kind of call to “theologically-based community parenting.” What might it look like for us—and the entire church—to lean into this reinvented family with a unique parenting role? How could all of us answer the call of feeding, teaching, mentoring, shaping, and loving the many, many young ones who surround us in need of care?
Christ was childfree, and yet he saw the value and responsibility of nurturing children. In Matthew, Chapter 19, verses 13-15, despite grumbles from the adults, Jesus welcomed children to come to him. In fact, he even said that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. If we take Christ’s words to heart, and put aside our traditional sense of what it means to be a nuclear family, we might better understand Jesus’ call to baptism as a means of progeny, the Body of Christ caring for and teaching its children.
Traditional, full-time parenting is the toughest job in the world. It takes unconditional love and grit to shape tiny humans. And, while it is a truly special and important task, not everyone is called to it. But, in reality, childfree adults are surrounded by little ones in need. One does not have to be a mother or father in the most traditional sense to assist in nurturing a child. If we believe in the power of baptism and community, then we are all parents.
This is parenthood, re-imagined.
J. Dana Trent is an award-winning author and teacher. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Baptist tradition. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk tells the story of her eHarmony-born interfaith marriage. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets @jdanatrent.
 Hauerwas, Stanley. “Abortion: Theologically Understood.” Taskforce of the United Methodist Church on Abortion and Sexuality, 1991. http://www.lifewatch.org/abortion.html